It was sometime during the latter part of last year that I finally got the chance to revisit Bangkok. My first time to be in that wonderful place was in 2008, that was the time when I went on a mini backpacking trip across Bangkok, Siem Reap and Vientianne with some college friends. Admittedly, our schedule (as well as budget) back then was a bit tight which was why I was really very keen on coming back even for just another short visit. An airline sale was all it took for me to revisit the City of Angels. This time, I would want it to be a more relaxed trip.

Just for a start, Bangkok is the capital of Thailand as well as its largest city. It has a population of more than 11 million people which is almost triple that of the Republic of Singapore. This place is certainly very well know around the world for being the mecca of backpackers (more on that later!) and its delicious food.

We left Singapore just before sunset taking a Jetstar flight that took just a little over 2 hours. Despite the fact that it was raining so hard when we landed in Bangkok, it was a fairly quiet flight and I just sat still on my seat for the whole time while reading a copy of the inflight magazine and Alex Garland’s The Beach.

Suvarnabhumi Airport is as stunning as how it was when I first visited. We passed by a lot of shops along the way since the docking bay for our flight was at the extreme end of the airport complex. It took more than five minutes of walking before reaching the immigration gate. As per previous experience, Bangkok immigration officials are not so quick in processing immigration formalities and true enough, it was still the same this time around.

Suvarnabhumi Airport = modern, clean and HUGE!!!

Immediately after clearing Bangkok immigration, we headed to the nearest money changer inside the airport to get our SGDs converted to THBs. It is very important to know the current fx conversion so as to have an idea whether the exchange rates are favorable or not. I was correct in assuming that the rates were not good so I just exchanged enough THBs to cover the taxi fare going to the hostel.

In Bangkok (and maybe all over Thailand), one of the things I really don’t like is the language barrier. Most applicable especially on the taxi drivers, as they have a hard time in understanding or in speaking the English language. A good way of getting around this “Lost in Translation” scenario is to have the name and address of your destination printed out beforehand. Doing it this way should greatly reduce the chances of you being brought to another destination far from where you intent to go. Getting a taxi was not much of a problem, we just headed to the designated counter and paid the “booking fee” and immediately got ourselves a ride going to the city.

Bangkok Expressway at night

The ride going to Decho Road took more than 20 minutes, a very fast one that is since we were using the expressway. The taxi driver dopped us off at the lobby of Lub d Bangkok Hostel. This was also the same accommodation which I used back in 2008. We did a quick check-in (thanks to HostelWorld, we were able to book in advance and was able to avail of a stay 2 night and get the 3rd night free in their private double room) then immediately headed out to find something to eat as we were already starving at past ten in the everning. The initial plan to stay just within the Silom Road area for dinner did not materialize because we did not find any place interesting to eat. It was a weekday then, so I surmise the establishments around the area closed much earlier than their weekend schedule.

I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take up to a place with good food. No such luck as we were “Lost in Translation” – I then decided that we visit visit Khao San Road. There was no problem upon hearing the word Khao San Road, we got there in less than 15 minutes – the infamous traffic of Bangkok was practically none existent that night as it was quiet late already.

mandatory touristy shot in Khao San Road

This short street in Central Bangkok is world famous and is considered as the gateway to Southeast Asia. It used to be a rice market; the past 20 years however saw it transformed to become a backpacker’s ghetto. Cheap accommodations, travel agencies, pubs, souvenir items, fake Lonely Planet books, cheap food – you name it and definitely you can see it in Khao San Road.

A Pad Thai Noodle stall in the street was too tempting for us and we each got ourselves one serving – at a ridiculously inexpensive price of just 25 Baht. It was prepared right before our very eye; preparation time was less than 2 minutes. Apart from being very cheap, it was simply the best Pad Thai Noodle that I have ever tasted. One thing that is really nice when you visit Bangkok is the plethora of affordable and delicious streetfood that can be found all over the city.

a snap taken with the Pad Thai lady

After finishing our food, we continued our stroll along Khao San Road. People from all walks of life were there; some were eating, some were drinking, and some were shopping. Yep, this is also a night market where you can get anything you want that can help you out in your travels – including fake identification cards. 😉

Khao San Road in full glory

An hour was enough for us to walk and feel the atmosphere of Khao San Road; not the cleanest place in Bangkok but definitely this place has its own charm which can keep you coming back for more. The reason perhaps is because I know for a fact that whenever I am in this area of the world, I am with kindred spirits – a lot of them!

Seeking donations for him to get a ticket for the World Cup

We stopped by a 7-11 store to get some water and noodles (as breakfast is not included in our accommodation) before flagging a pink Toyota taxi that took us back to our hostel.

The whole journey from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh was uneventful. As we left Phnom Penh at 6:00 in the morning, I practically continued my sleep inside the bus. I just woke up on a mid-morning break near the border where we had breakfast and a toilet break.

A few minutes after resuming the journey, we were already at the Cambodian side of the border. It was quick and easy as the bus company took our passports beforehand and they took care of the necessary stuffs to clear past immigration.

It was a different story though when we reached the Vietnamese side as they were stricter. It probably took us more than 30 minutes to clear past immigration. They have conducted a thermometer check on my girlfriend and me as they have observed that we were “glowing” in the thermal camera. Of course, we didn’t have any fever but that alone probably took more than 15 minutes. All went well afterwards though as they do not have a reason not to let us in as we have previously been inside their country. As soon as we were resumed our bus ride inside Vietnamese territory, I continued sleeping.

It was only upon entering Ho Chi Minh City that I woke up, it was around 11:30 then. I can see from my seat the familiar chaos buzzing around the nation’s capital, most notable the motorcycles scrambling all over the place.

We got off in Pham Ngu Lao Street (the backpacker area in the city) at around 11:45. As we still have sufficient time, we decided to have a decent lunch at this wonderful restaurant called Quan An Ngon. I had our last dollars changed to Vietnamese Dong (VND) and immediately boarded a taxi that took us to the Reunification Palace, the tourist spot nearest the aforementioned restaurant.

snap taken at Pham Ngu Lao

snap taken at Pham Ngu Lao

I have already eaten in this restaurant before with my brother. It is a very famous establishment amongst locals and tourists in the city ; as expected, we had to wait for around 10 minutes before we were able to get a seat. We ordered grilled beef, Pho and cold sweetened coffee. Our lunch was very delicious, it was definitely worth queuing.

taken outside Quan An Ngon

this was outside Quan An Ngon

i could salivate by looking at this...

i could salivate by looking at this...

Phở Bò Kho, another favorite dish in Vietnam

Phở Bò Kho, another favorite dish in Vietnam

After settling our bills, we took a taxi going to Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Traffic was not bad at all as it was a Sunday and it was just immediately after lunchtime; I have read somewhere that Vietnamese also have their own version of the siesta, this probably explained the relatively easy traffic condition. The ride from the city center took around 15 minutes and it cost just under 100,000 VND.

There was a slight queue in the check-in counter but it didn’t take such a long time before we got hold of our boarding pass. At this point, we knew we are already nearing Singapore as we heard a couple of people in a queue beside us speaking in Singlish.

We cleared past Vietnamese immigration with no problem except for that grumpy old immigration officer who told me to place my tripod inside the bag. I told him that I have been hand carrying this same tripod in all my flights and so far I haven’t encountered any problem from any airline. He didn’t bother me after I made that comment.

Tan Son Nhat - a nice clean airport

Tan Son Nhat - a nice clean airport

The waiting time for boarding to commence didn’t take so long and before we knew it, we were already inside flight 3K 554 bound for Singapore. You might be expecting me to sleep for the whole duration of the flight but no I did not. The reason I was not able to get some shut-eye was because of this guy sitting in front of my seat who was snoozing very loud (as in VERY LOUD). I will remember next time to bring my iPod to filter out unwanted noise.

What I did instead was open my trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook and started reading about my destination next week. I just realized then that it will be less than five days to go and I still have not arranged our itinerary and our accommodations.

It didn’t take long before we were back in Singapore and was back to reality. Tomorrow, it will be back to work – on the brighter side though, it will just be for four days before a new adventure begins. 

Revisiting Siem Reap

13 August 2009

It was Thursday and I finished working at around 2 in the morning and afterwards I hurriedly went back to my apartment to prepare for a much-awaited trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia – my 2nd  visit actually. The first one was with some college friends more than a year ago.

I managed to do some quick packing before going out of the apartment at around past 3:30 AM, no choice but to take a taxi – 15 minutes later, I was already in Terminal 1 of Changi International Airport. The check-in process was a breeze as it was still very early, too early in fact for any stores to be open inside the airport. It was a good thing that I had a Priority Pass membership, which enabled me to have 2 free access to selected airport lounges all over the world in a given year. We availed this at the Rainforest Lounge inside Changi Terminal 1. The food they prepared inside was not very fancy but it was enough to keep our stomach warm and most importantly we did have a place to stay before our 6:00 AM flight.

Flight 3K 599 of Jetstar left on time and as soon as the plane was in cruising altitude, I was already in slumberland. It was a smooth ride as my sleep was uninterrupted until the stewardess asked me to adjust my seat back into upright position, a sign that we were about to land in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

taken before I dozed off

taken before I dozed off

The plane touched down a few minutes after at the Siem Reap International Airport. This said airport is very small (small for an international airport) but I was very impressed with it. It looks very modern and is very clean; I guess they must have invested a lot for this place, as it is the gateway of the Temples of Angkor – a massive tourist attraction in which the town heavily relied on.

Siem Reap International Airport

Siem Reap International Airport

A local driver picked us up from the airport and from there we got a free tuktuk ride to our guesthouse, Green Garden Home. We were given an early check-in as requested and immediately I took the opportunity to get some rest.

I woke up at around an hour before noontime with a grumbling stomach, it was a clear sign that we should find a place to eat in the next hour or so. We went out of the street and were immediately greeted by touts who were offering their tuktuk service around the Angkor temples. We managed to get the service of Seth, a driver who agreed to pick us up at sunrise and to drive us to temples that are more than an hour away from town for a decent price. He also agreed to drive us in the afternoon to get our tickets as well as drive us to one of the temples for a glimpse of the sunset.

Seth gave us a complimentary ride to the gallery of John McDermott, an American photographer who now resides in Cambodia; his striking sepia-style images gave us a preview of the temples in a different light.

sample works of John McDermmont

sample works of John McDermmont

After admiring the excellent works of John McDermott, we strolled down the river and found ourselves around the Bar Street area. We settled down and had lunch in this chic restaurant called Blue Pumpkin. Food was okay, better than average but the ambiance there was just so relaxing.

2nd Floor - Blue Pumpkin

2nd Floor - Blue Pumpkin

I was fully recharged after eating and having a power nap; immediately we started strolling around the area. The shops in bar street proved to be very interesting – lots of restaurants, pubs, travel agencies, galleries, spas and various shops.

As it was still early for us to start our afternoon tour, we availed of an hour long Khmer Massage at “U & Me Spa” – what we had was pure reflexology in a very relaxed environment. It was something we really need before we start our fully packed temple tour.

It was almost 4 in the afternoon when we stepped out of the spa, just in time for us to meet Seth. He drove us to the ticket booth for us to buy our temple pass. This temple pass is available 1 (20 USD), 3 (40 USD), or 7 (60 USD) days. The 3-day pass is valid for a week, while the 7-day pass is valid for a month. Since we bought the ticket late in the afternoon before the first day of the pass, we can use it to enter the park after 5:00 PM to view the sunset. These passes are non-transferable and includes the photo of the owner.

tourist lining up to buy temple pass

tourist lining up to buy temple pass

Phnom Bakheng, the first temple mountain constructed in Angkor was our sunset stop. This temple had a very good view of the surrounding area and is an extremely popular place for sunsets. We went up the hill via an elephant which was quite expensive, but then again we paid for the experience so I guess it was not so bad.

the elephant who took us up the hill

the elephant who took us up the hill

There were crowds all over the place (as expected) when we reached the top. We managed to climb all the way up the steep temple stairs. The view on top was good, and we did get to explore the place a bit before it got dark.

lotsa tourist waiting for the sunset

lotsa tourist waiting for the sunset

spectacular view from above

spectacular view from above

Phnom Bakeng

Phnom Bakheng

The hike going down took approximately 10 minutes, and it was already dark when we arrived at the foot of the hill. Seth took us back to our guesthouse and bade farewell for the day.

We relaxed for a bit by dipping in the small pool inside the Green Garden compound – this pool was the clincher as to why we choose this guesthouse over the other names we initially considered.

It was time to head back to Bar Street after refreshing ourselves. The place was different at night, it was so lively, colorful and loud. We found ourselves in The Alley and had supper at this place called Khmer Kitchen Restaurant; it was said that Sir Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones once ate on this joint. It was a good place for us to be initially exposed to Cambodian food.

The Alley, Siem Reap

The Alley, Siem Reap

We then had a few drinks at this place called Banana Leaf while watching Cambojam, a local band composed of 2 Filipino vocalists.

Cambojam

Cambojam

Shortly thereafter, we called it a night as there was a sunrise appointment at the Angkor Wat the following day.